Auteur: Sico van der Meer
Dossier: ‘Are Arms controlling us, or can we take back control?‘
Gasthoofdredacteur: Hugo Klijn

During and after the Cold War many effective arms control agreements with regard to Weapons of Mass Destruction were successfully negotiated. Yet, in the last few years many of these agreements have been abandoned or are under pressure. What is happening?

Arms control agreements with regard to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons negotiated during and after the Cold War used to be highly successful. Treaties such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention set a strong global norm against the production and use of these weapons. Chemical and biological weapon arsenals were almost completely dismantled and bilateral arms control agreements between the United States (US) and Russia caused the total number of nuclear weapons in the world to drop from an estimated 70,300 in the 1980s to some 13,400 nowadays.[1]

Nuclear weapon agreements

Regarding nuclear arms control much has happened in the past few years. In 2018 the US withdrew unilaterally from the nuclear deal with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA). President Donald Trump stated it was “a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made”, especially because it still allowed Iran a residual, though very restricted, nuclear programme and did not include limits on Iran’s “other malign behaviour.”[2] The US withdrawal came only after Iran had significantly downscaled its nuclear programme and was in full compliance with the deal.

In 2019 both the US and Russia withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty after accusing each other of violating it. The unwillingness of both sides to save the treaty, which prohibited certain types of (nuclear) missiles, was a clear show of distrust. The US signalled that a new agreement on some categories of (nuclear) missiles could be negotiated, but only if China would be involved. Yet, China reiterated that it will only join such negotiations after the US and Russia have reduced their nuclear arsenals significantly; while China has some 320 nuclear weapons, the US and Russia possess 5800 and 6372 respectively.[3]

Also, in 2019 the US accused Russia of violating the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by secretly conducting limited nuclear weapon testing, and in 2020 it accused China of doing the same. Although the CTBT never did come into force, one of the main reasons being the US’s unwillingness to ratify the treaty, these unsubstantiated accusations risk damaging trust in the treaty. Deliberations within the Trump administration indicating that the US may soon resume nuclear testing itself, only increase this pessimism.

Meanwhile, the New START Treaty limiting the number of nuclear warheads deployed by the US and Russia is due to expire in February 2021. Russia has expressed a wish to extend or renew the treaty, but so far, the US has been reluctant to engage in any serious talks on the issue. If New START will not be extended or succeeded this means that the US and Russia are free to deploy as many nuclear weapons as they wish.[4] This risks a new Cold War style arms race including increased instability and dangerous escalation potential.

Non-Proliferation Treaty

In the meantime, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) also faces increasing criticism. For several years many non-nuclear-armed states have been complaining about the lack of nuclear disarmament by the five nuclear-armed NPT-member states that promised in the treaty to “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”[5]

The fact that all nuclear-armed states are investing heavily in their nuclear arsenals and related delivery systems is fuelling the frustration.[6] Some investments, for example in low-yield nuclear weapons and in cruise missiles with nuclear warheads, are dangerously lowering the threshold for use or blurring the line between conventional and nuclear weapons. This may lead more easily to nuclear war because of misperceptions.

In 2017 a new nuclear weapons treaty was established: the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Although it does not yet have enough ratifications to enter into force this treaty, which does not just prohibit the production of nuclear weapons like the NPT but also the possession and use of them, causes some polarisation among states.[7] Some consider the treaty as a much-needed strengthening of the nuclear taboo while others see it as undermining the NPT. The non-involvement of any of the nuclear-armed states especially causes criticism that the treaty is not contributing to actual disarmament.

Chemical and biological weapons

With regard to chemical and biological weapons there are traditionally fewer arms control agreements compared to nuclear weapons. Especially the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is a very effective treaty which contributed to near global chemical disarmament. Yet, after a long period during which chemical weapons almost disappeared, in the past few years such weapons were used in Syria, Malaysia and the United Kingdom. The perpetrators faced hardly any repercussions, thus eroding the norm against chemical weapon use. Polarization among CWC member states had some paralyzing effects, including Russia vetoing an extension of the attribution mechanism for chemical weapon use in the United Nations. No states have withdrawn from the CWC yet, but one cannot exclude such a scenario if polarisation continues.[8]

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) has set a strong norm against biological weapons, yet it lacks a verification mechanism, so actual information on biological weapons facilities is absent. In recent years the interest of various member states in the BWC declined; because of non-payments of contributions, some member states’ meetings had almost to be cancelled due to a lack of funds.[9]


Why is arms control, after decades of success, currently under pressure? Increasing distrust among key states may be the most important factor, especially because of growing tensions between great powers such as the US, Russia and China. Yet, the changing geopolitical environment in general plays a role as well. Instead of the bipolar Cold War environment (US versus Soviet Union) and the almost unipolar situation in the years after the Cold War, the trend is now towards a multipolar world in which more states gain great power status; think only of China’s rising star. Similarly, more states are heavily investing in (especially nuclear) weapons and their delivery systems than before.

At the same time, new technological developments may make Cold War arms control agreements  look outdated. Those older agreements did not take into account modern technologies such as hypersonic missiles, artificial intelligence, space weapons and cyber threats. These developments may make modernized arms control agreements desirable, yet it is debatable whether throwing the old agreements away before having updated ones is the best way to move forward.

Risk of escalation

Whatever the exact reasons may be for the decreasing trust in arms control, the demise of agreements and the lack of negotiations to replace them is certainly a worrying development. Arms control is not an ideological issue, but a security issue. Arms control agreements aim to prevent arms races, instability and escalation, which in the end benefits everyone.

Especially with regard to nuclear weapons, a continuing decline in support for arms control is risky. Even though currently only nine states possess nuclear weapons, a lower nuclear threshold and an increasing risk of nuclear escalation may seriously affect the rest of the world as well. Even though the moral taboo on actually using nuclear weapons may still be strong, one cannot exclude the possibility that nuclear war could become an actual option at some moment.

To keep their nuclear deterrence credible, nuclear-armed states have to signal that they are prepared to use their nuclear weapons as a measure of last resort. Especially in times of crisis and quickly escalating tensions, there is a risk that miscommunication and misperceptions, or outright failures by humans or machines, could create a situation in which a conflict may escalate to a nuclear level without anyone actually aiming for that. Unfortunately, there are already too many examples in history of ‘near misses’ in which nuclear weapons were almost used.[10] To prevent any future use of Weapons of Mass Destruction, on purpose or by mistake, new initiatives to rescue and renew arms control can only be welcomed.

Sico van der Meer

Sico van der Meer is a Research Fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’. His research focuses on non-conventional weapons such as Weapons of Mass Destruction and cyber weapons.

[1] Hans M. Kristensen & Matt Korda ‘Status of world nuclear forces’, Federation of American Scientists, April 2020.

[2] Remarks by President Trump on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’, The White House, 8 May 2018.

[3] Kristensen & Korda ‘Status of world nuclear forces’.

[4] Robbie Gramer & Lara Seligman, ‘The INF Treaty is dead. Is New START next?’, Foreign Policy, 1 February 2019.

[5] Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

[6] Nuclear weapon modernization continues but the outlook for arms control is bleak’, SIPRI, 15 June 2020.

[7] Tytti Erästö, ‘The NPT and the TPNW: Compatible or conflicting nuclear weapons treaties?’, SIPRI, 6 March 2019.

[8] Sico van der Meer & Malik Ellahi, ‘Strengthening the norm: The Chemical Weapons Convention 2018 Review Conference’, Clingendael, October 2018.

[9] Jenifer Mackby, ‘BWC meeting stumbles over money, politics’, Arms Control Today, February 2019.

[10] Patricia Lewis a.o., ‘Too close for comfort: Cases of near nuclear use and options for policy’, Chatham House, April 2014.